Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time

By Mary Waldron | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
The Frailties of Fanny

With the publication of Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen has by no means finished with the stereotypes of the oppositional polemical novel of the nineties, but her next work after the publication of Pride and Prejudice brings a somewhat different feature of contemporary fiction more centrally into play - the exemplary girl who battles with worldliness and vice, emerging ultimately victorious after innumerable tribulations, misunderstandings and accusations. She is often, though not always, orphaned, or for some other reason dependent on the protection of powerful relations.

Emmeline, Cecilia, Camilla and Belinda are examples of this kind of heroine, and though, as we have seen, Austen was not unreservedly admiring of either Fanny Burney or Maria Edgeworth, and had already parodied Emmeline in Northanger Abbey, they display enough signs of human frailty to be more to her taste than other pattern females who appear in novels which she specifically scorns in her letters to Cassandra and Anna. Sarah Burney's Clarentine (1798) concerns a girl who, despite temptations, never deviates, even in thought, from the accepted path of right conduct. Austen is unreservedly scathing about this one in a letter to Cassandra. Two other novelists are mentioned by her in disparaging terms - Hannah More, whose Calebs in Search of a Wife came out in 1808, and Mary Brunton, who published Self-control in 1810. All three novels clearly set out to instruct whilst at the same time entertaining a public hungry for fiction as well as for moral guidance.

For Austen they appear to have represented a trend in fiction of which she could not approve. Of Clarentine she remarks in 1807, 'It is full of unnatural conduct & forced difficulties, without striking merit of any kind'; 1 in 1809 Cassandra's account of Calebs does not attract her — 'My disinclination for it before was affected, but now it is real. I do not like the Evangelicals. ' She later accuses More of pedantry in

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